Don’t Need Much To Listen…

July 15, 2017

Just yesterday, I had an amazing patient visit. This one was a little different though. It was not congratulating a patient for their improved diabetes numbers or the fact their blood pressure dropped from improving their diet. It was different because this particular patient took the time to thank me for listening to him and his story.

He had only been in Seattle for about a year from Kenya. He had battled with stomach ulcers for nine years that was complicated from his four back to back surgeries. He was lucky to be alive. This patient knew how to listen to his own body. He listened to cues on when his stomach was acting up or when he was stressed or when he ate the wrong thing. However, when he attempted to explain his unique history to an American physician, he found himself lost and confused. Every doctor encounter was less than 5 minutes long and he was just handed a prescription and a large unjustified bill. Like so many patients in America, he was frustrated.

I was not sure what was particularly different that day that made him notice me or maybe he was one of the few that took the time to acknowledge their doctors (Yes, we do appreciate it when you do. Very much so). I remembered I stopped looking at the computer screen and turned my body and faced him. I focused on his apprehensive body language and paid attention to his candor.

To all patients: Most of us doctors, yes even the grumpy ones, want to listen. I would like to believe that most of us came into this noble profession to help. However, due to the constraints of modern healthcare, it has become more and more challenging to do even the simple act of listening. Productivity numbers, administrative deadlines, hospital standards, the list goes on…stand in the forefront of our minds, before we can even consider a patient’s story.

To all fellow colleagues: Please, please, please. The greatest treatment you can give to a patient is your full attention, patience, and a listening ear. Nothing else takes precedence. According a NYT article, we interrupt a patient story, just 18 seconds into the conversation. From this, a myriad of things could go wrong. A patient could walk out misdiagnosed or worse, a patient ends up having less trust in us. You got this though. There is so much good you guys do out there. Stop, drop, and listen…

  1. Observe their body language. A patient’s nonverbal cues actually gives us more information than what they have to say.
  2. Focus your attention towards them. How you present yourself will let a patient know how much confidence they can place in you.
  3. Listen with both ears. Here’s a news flash….we can’t actually multitask!!! Psychologist David Strayer found that 97.5% of people fail at this.

My patient took 10 minutes to thank me for the simple act of listening to his story. I told him I appreciated it and I did because that reinforced what I had been doing all along. This was my water station to my marathon. Sometimes, we cannot sprint all the time. Sometimes, we just need to slow down.

Much Love,

- Zhu